Invisible men

is what Anthony Gordon calls the homeless, and he should know.

People may complain about the homeless, but when you're one of them, Gordon says, "you are invisible. People don't even stop to look at you."

For years, if he wasn't in prison, Gordon was on the street, oblivious to the world, the only sound in his head the pounding of his cocaine-fueled heart.

These days, Gordon, 38, is still on the streets, sober almost two years, and behind the wheel of a Keystone Quality Transit bus, driving mentally disabled people to a behavioral health center.

"I talk to them. I try to connect with them," Gordon said of his passengers. "I care about them. I could be, but for the grace of God, mentally disabled. So I don't forget."

City officials estimated that 270 people are living on the streets of Center City and that 2,774 are in shelters citywide. Among the ranks of the formerly homeless, Gordon is one of the elite: sober, employed, and in his own apartment.

He is a graduate - valedictorian - of this year's class of 40 from Ready, Willing & Able, a South Philadelphia center that works with single men, the group many consider the most intractable of the homeless.

Gordon, who now uses his Muslim name, Sabir, beamed as he talked of his achievement, celebrated late last month when he spoke from the stage of the New Freedom Theater in North Philadelphia at RWA's commencement.

He is also amazed he is still alive, considering that he began using alcohol and drugs at age 9 and served three prison terms totaling 71/2 years.

At first, Gordon said, he wasn't sure he could go through with his address.

Last year's valedictorian, Ahmed Fletcher, 48, reassured him: "If I could do it, so can you. It's your time now."

Gordon calls Fletcher his brother and, during an interview, Fletcher smiled and nodded as Gordon told of his own turnaround.

Both have returned regularly to Ready, Willing & Able, at 12th and Bainbridge Streets, to counsel the men living where they once did.

Ready, Willing & Able and its parent, the Doe Fund, were started in 1990 in New York by philanthropist George T. McDonald. McDonald said he had been inspired by a homeless woman known as "Mama Doe," who died on Christmas in 1985 after being ejected from Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan.

Reading, Willing & Able accepts homeless men who demonstrate that they are motivated to change, live drug-free and work. The men get a dormitory to call home, a minimum-wage job, counseling, and training in such life skills as budgeting and personal finance.

A portion of their earnings covers room and board. A mandatory savings program ensures graduates leave with $1,000 or more.

The goal is that after 12 to 18 months, the men will be sober, work full time, and be able to handle living in their own home and as part of a community.

RWA's residents are visible in Philadelphia because of the blue shirts they wear as they clean litter from sidewalks and parks.

The group's graduation was held in New York until last year, when officials decided the five-year-old Philadelphia unit was established enough to hold its ceremony in its residents' hometown.

Though the street-cleaning continues - RWA crews collect more than 1,000 bags of trash weekly - RWA is adding vocational training to its mix, said Kate Houstoun, its director of community affairs.

"They'll always have the landscaping to fall back on, but we wanted to try to do more to prepare them for the job market," Houstoun said.

Though Gordon and Fletcher wound up homeless because of addiction to cocaine and crack, both maintain that there's no one path to homelessness.

"For some people, it's an emergency, and they just don't have any family around," Gordon said. "Some people are less fortunate than others, and some people have a mental illness."

Nor is there any one path back inside.

Gordon was released from prison about two years ago and promptly resumed selling drugs. After his daughter reproached him, he said, he realized he was "about to lead another generation of my family down a path of drugs and crime. . . . I knew I had to get help."

After spending his last $80 on crack, Gordon said, he was so upset he could not get high. The next morning, he walked into St. Joseph's Hospital and went into detox. His caseworker, Gordon said, referred him to Ready, Willing & Able.

Fletcher was never in prison, living 20 years on the streets. He said he often had slept in abandoned houses, crumpling newspaper around him to warn of approaching rats.

In 2003, after his mother died, an outreach worker found him outside in subfreezing weather, Fletcher said. In a dream, he said, his mother urged him to stop using drugs and "get my life together."

Today, Fletcher is on staff at My Brother's House in South Philadelphia, the shelter where he was staying the night of his epiphany.

Both men are now practicing Muslims, regulars at Narcotics Anonymous meetings, and resolute about staying sober and employed.

Gordon said he had seen former street associates dead on the sidewalks. He said he was happy spending the weekend in his apartment, watching basketball and movies with his six children.

"These young guys say they're hanging out," Gordon added. "I'm one of the old heads now. Why would I go hang out? There's nothing outside."

About Ready, Willing & Able

Location: 1211 Bainbridge St.

Phone: 215-732-3781.

Director: LeeRoy Jordan.

On site: The 70-bed facility is for homeless men who show they are willing to change, live drug-free, and work.

Established: Feb. 1, 2002, by the Doe Fund of New York. The fund created the first RWA program in Manhattan in 1990; satellite operations in Jersey City, N.J., and Philadelphia followed. Last year, more than 1,000 homeless men joined RWA programs in the three cities.

SOURCE: Doe Fund; Ready, Willing & Able